Environmentalists caricature civil engineers as uncaring, irresponsible and only interested in pouring as much concrete and laying as much blacktop as possible. But engineers stress the social benefits of the infrastructure they provide. This week we ask: Is it right that engineers carry the primary responsibility for the environmental aspects of the projects that they design and build?
The work of civil engineers permanently alters the environment and I believe they can and should carry the primary responsibility for the environmental effects of their work.
During the inception of a project there is the greatest opportunity to influence the final shape of a scheme. At this stage, the scheme options are rightly considered in the context of social, political and economic constraints. However, as part of the project team, civil engineers have a major role in advising on the technologies available to minimise environmental impact.
Examples of our leading role in this work include the development of sustainable technologies, land remediation techniques and alternatives to landfill waste disposal. Civil engineers are at the heart of the development of these innovations and are responsible for promoting them for civil engineering projects.
At the detailed design stage, the client will have made many decisions that affect the environmental impact of the project but, within the client's brief, civil engineers are well placed to lead the multi-disciplinary effort required to design projects. The team will often include experts who provide specialist advice on specific environmental issues and the advice given may go beyond the expertise of the civil engineer.
However, it is civil engineers who have the knowledge and expertise to assess the advice and who are able to 'strike an informed balance in terms of cost, benefits, sustainability and acceptability . . .' according to the ICE's Environmental Policy Statement.
When the design is complete, civil engineers have a role in minimising the environmental impact of the construction process. The selection of appropriate construction techniques and plant can minimise noise pollution, local material utilisation and co-ordination of deliveries can reduce traffic movements and the control of waste can minimise resource requirements and landfill implications.
Clients' needs and expectations dictate the work of civil engineers. However, civil engineers have a key role in development and promotion of technologies, technical appraisal of scheme options, detailed scheme design and, ultimately, construction of the project. In these primary roles, civil engineers should take primary responsibility for the environmental impact of their work.
We live in a world where natural disasters, such as the floods in Mozambique, make us realise that the human race cannot control nature - but it certainly affects it.
Society demands progress and progress inevitably means change and change will often affect the environment. Society requires improved transport links and, though rail travel is a high priority, most people still prefer the independence of car travel whenever possible. There are some conservationists who believe that any new road building is wrong. But in the end, the will of the majority of the population means that some new roads are built.
Society also wants more houses.
This concept is accepted by most people and it is only the numbers and their location, that is in dispute. However, many are built and some will be on greenfield sites. All new housing will inevitably affect the local road network, which in turn affects the local environment.
The list of demands that society makes in the name of progress is endless, from cleaner water and more highly treated sewage to a wider, more exotic selection of fruit and vegetables in local supermarkets, to faster, cheaper air travel. All these will impact on the environment somehow, somewhere.
Society must accept that its demands will affect the environment. As engineers, we have to respond to society's requirements and our responsibility is to mitigate the effects of any changes. We cannot do that alone.
Many projects involve surveys of flora and fauna as part of an environmental impact assessment in accordance with EC and/or UK regulations.
Suitable environmental specialists are engaged to undertake such surveys.
Engineers must be responsible for mitigating the environmental effects of a project during both the design and construction phases. They must minimise the energy usage, consider all aspects of sustainability, reduction of visual impact where appropriate, avoidance of nuisance and pollution particularly during construction - the list is enormous.
But, while engineers have significant environmental responsibilities for their projects, the overall responsibility is shared with society, the client, environmental specialists and manufacturers.
In its Environmental Policy Statement, the ICE exhorts its members to 'develop and maintain a high standard of environmental awareness and to continuously improve environmental performance within their professional activities.'
The ICE also recommends that members should be guided by the Engineering Council's environmental code of practice.
The document requires all engineers to 'work to enhance the quality of the environment' and to 'encourage management to follow positive environmental policies'.
The ICE's Environmental Policy Statement is available on www.ice.org.uk
The Engineering Council's code of practice on the environment can be found on www.engc.org.uk